Thursday, March 19, 2009

Michael Clayton

"And then I realize, 'No, no, no, this is completely wrong,' because I looked back at the building and I had the most stunning moment of clarity. I realized, Michael, that I had emerged, not through the doors of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the poison , the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other, larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity." - Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens

What is it about the legal profession that makes it such a favored target in popular fiction and film? Every few months, it seems, another trial of the century ends either with a bang when some rich and powerful defendant is acquitted, or with a whimper when he is handed a light sentence like probation or community service.*

In either outcome, the lawyers who defend or prosecute get most of the blame for what is generally believed to be a broken justice system. Why this is so, when it is juries and judges, and not lawyers, who hand down judgements, is difficult to comprehend. When a lawyer is tasked with the defense or prosecution of a case, it is his sworn duty to do whatever he can, within the limits of jurisprudence, to win the case. To do otherwise could not only endanger his reputation but shorten his career as a lawyer.

Whatever it may be that so many people dislike about lawyers, it is regularly reinforced by Hollywood, which has a bad habit of indulging people's prejudices. The 2007 film, Michael Clayton, while it is certainly cleverly constructed and executed, is no exception to the popular rule that lawyers are the devil's advocates - or, in this case, advocates of U/North, a corporation that manufactures a weed killer that poisons small-time farmers. The film's titular hero, played with self-effacing charm by George Clooney, is, in his own words, his firm's "bag man" or "janitor," whose considerable skills at cleaning up legal messes are called upon when a colleague, Arthur Edens, takes leave of his senses - and his clothes - during a recorded deposition in Milwaukee. Arthur, who has had such breakdowns before, tells Michael that he has had enough of defending U/North against a $3 billion class action suit. What he fails to tell Michael is that he also intends to leak a confidential study that incriminates U/North in the farmers' deaths.

To make sure that Michael gets Arthur under control, U/North sends in their lead counsel, Karen Crowder, who takes matters into her own hands by contacting a pair of assassins to take care of Arthur. The way they go about tracking him down, watching his every move and then, at Karen Crowder's signal, killing him is easily one of the most chilling film sequences I have ever seen.

Michael is such a successfully imagined character, with his young son from a failed marriage, his father a retired cop and his brother a police detective, and another brother relapsing in his drug addiction and forcing Michael to sell the bar on which they had gone into together, that it is a shame that the film had to resort to the star lawyer who has an ethical meltdown and the corporate lawyer who makes decisions that crush people but who has panic attacks when she is alone. It helps that both of these roles are played by outstanding actors: Tom Wilkinson as Arthur and Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder.

Some of the dialogue is brilliant. It shows just how much Tony Gilroy, who wrote and directed the film, cares about the people he has created. Gabe, who has handled the loan for Michael's failed business, talks to him about his brother Timmy's drug problems: "I had a wife who was a drunk. She was a beautiful girl, young girl. But live like that? Even they do a program. She did, I think, once, two years. And then they slip? Forget it. It's like you're strapped to a bomb."

Or when Michael reassures his son that he not like his uncle Timmy: "Your Uncle Timmy, and I mean this, on his best day, is never as tough as you. I'm not talking about crying or the drugs or anything. I'm talking about in his heart. You understand me? And all his charming bullshit, this Big Tim, Uncle, Boss bullshit, and I know you love him, and I know why. But when you see him like that you don't have to worry. That's not how it'll be for you. You're not gonna be someone that goes through life wondering why shit keeps falling out of the sky around them. I know that. I know it. Okay? I see it every time I look at you. I see it right now. I don't know where you got it from, but you got it."

Gilroy has done nothing to prepare us for the serene beauty of certain scenes in Michael Clayton. People point to the slick efficacy of his scripts for the Bourne movies like they are anything more than assured commercial work. Despite the problems with the Arthur Edens and Karen Crowder characters, which supply the film with its melodramatic conflict, Gilroy manages to make us wonder at what it could be that causes a 45-year-old disenchanted lawyer to make a wrong turn at dawn on a cold country road, and get out of his company car to walk a hundred yards up a hill to get close to three beautiful horses.

*Football legend Jim Brown, convicted of trashing his wife's car, expressed his contempt for court-ordered community service by choosing to serve 40 days in jail instead.

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